Look across the Zee for economic inspiration

[TITLE] Look across the Zee for economic inspiration

Arable farmers from all over Europe descended on Lincolnshire last week for Cereals 2012. We grow daffodils just up the road, so I managed to tie in my visit with some field walking. It was quite sweet to see the smiling faces looking around the big, shiny machinery; it reminded me of my five-year-old godson, Theo, playing with his toy tractors. Cereals isn’t really aimed at me – I’m not turned on by soil compaction, monocultures or free pork rolls. I had useful conversations about soil biology, compost teas and renewable heat sources, but I was happy when it was time to go back to my soggy flower fields in the south of the county.

A couple of days before that, I was visiting growers and machinery manufacturers in the Netherlands. I took the night ferry and passed the evening pleasantly sitting in the bar guessing people’s nationalities from their clothes. Football shirts mostly indicated British, red shoes and snow-washed denim generally meant Dutch. My main reason for the visit, however, was to look at horticulture, not haute couture.

While Holland may trail behind even the Australians in the fashion stakes, their horticulture is years ahead of ours. Compared to a UK producer, the Dutch counterpart looks like a NASA scientist and the level of sophistication and detail they employ is thrilling.

While British farms have been busy becoming fewer in number, duller and more homogenised, the Dutch have become more specialised and technology-driven. This is why rural areas in Holland look so much more vibrant. Because the businesses proudly operate on smaller acreages, there are a lot more of them and each farmstead looks prosperous, individual and carefully managed.

Although both of our countries operate under a common EU agricultural system, I can think of a couple of cultural differences that explain why Dutch and UK production businesses have evolved in slightly different ways. The main one is that a Dutch businessman prizes profit and efficiency ahead of scale. In the UK we love big things; we wait until our neighbours have bought something and then we order one a metre wider. We judge farmers by how many acres they have and not by more relevant economic measures such as how much profit they make, how many people they employ or how much net tax they contribute to society.

The other difference is that Dutch government has always believed in its rural industries. Recent governments in the UK haven’t shown the same conviction and consequently we have less pride and confidence. We lack true innovation, our supply chains have fallen into foreign ownership and we are dominated by powerful global corporations.

My greatest admiration of the Dutch is reserved for the dam across the Zeider Zee or, as I like to call it, the Afsluitdijk. It has delivered prosperity by linking isolated parts of the country with a motorway, it has protected their cities from flooding, it has secured their farmland and its water supply and one day it could provide a lot of their energy through hydro-electric generation. This has to be one be one of the finest and most noble pieces of civil engineering ever designed.

This weekend, I walked my dog along the sea bank and gazed at the Wash stretching from those two economic powerhouses, Hunstanton and Skegness. I reflected that if the government is looking for a bold capital investment to boost the economy, they too might want to visit Lincolnshire.

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